Europe's Student-Built Satellite Rockets into Space
SSETI Express, a satellite designed and built by European university students, launched on 27 October 2005 at 2:52 EDT from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on a Russian Cosmos 3M launcher.
Credit: ESA.

A student-built spacecraft rocketed into space alongside several other microsatellites early Thursday, riding a Russian booster skyward in a space staged from Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

The boxy SSETI Express satellite, built by more than 400 university students for the European Space Agency (ESA),  launched into space atop a 10-story Kosmos 3M rocket at 2:52 a.m. EDT (0652 GMT). According to Russia's Interfax News Agency, the spacecraft and seven other microsatellites reached their intended orbit shortly afterward.

"This image that we have of the launcher on the pad, this is the image they had," said Philippe Willekens, education projects administrator for the ESA, of SSETI Express' student builders before the successful launch. "They wanted to...launch that dream, and it's finally paid off."

The SSETI Express satellite is the first spacecraft of three planned by the ESA's

Student Space Exploration Technology Initiative (SSETI) program, which is at encouraging student interest in space and engineering, while offering practical experience.

Built from donated and student-built components, the 136-pound (62-kilogram) SSETI Express satellite is about the size of a small washing machine and is expected to photograph the earth and serve as a radio transponder for amateur radio operators. It also carried three 4-inch (10-centimeter) wide picosatellites into orbit, ESA officials said.

Riding into orbit with SSETI Express were Russia's Mozhayets-5 satellite, as well as the Britain's TopSat, Iran's Sina-1, Norway's Ncube-2, Germany's UWE-1, Japan's XI-5 and China's DMC-4 - which is also known as Beijing-1.

Delays in the delivery of Sina-1 pushed today's space shot from its original Sept. 30 launch date, Interfax said.

China's Beijing-1 spacecraft should generate an extremely detailed map of the country. The spacecraft was expected to form part of the international Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) and carries the China Mapping Telescope to image the nation's topography, according to officials with the optics firm Sira, which built the telescope for the Britain's Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL).

With a resolution of about four meters, the China Mapping Telescope is reportedly about eight times more powerful than past DMC satellites, and will be used for mapping and disaster monitoring in preparation for Beijing Olympics, Sira officials said.

SSTL - which also constructed the TopSat spacecraft - provided the Beijing-1 for the Beijing Landview Mapping Information Technology Ltd, according to their website.

Meanwhile, ESA officials hope that SSETI Express won't be their last student-built project. Plans are already underway for an Earth orbiter - the European Space Earth Orbiter (ESE0) and a Moon orbiter, and interest seems to be growing among the program's target audience.

"Every year a dozen or so students of our university join the project," Marcin Jagoda, who graduated from Poland's Wroclaw University of Technology in July where his team built SSETI Express' communications system, told before launch. "Currently [the] team is working on the communications system for the European Space Earth."